Father's Day Round Table
One might reasonably argue that we here at Car Lust do not really write about cars as much as we write about ourselves; the cars are simply a vehicle (pun intended) allowing us to tell a story of how we view ourselves, our friends and family, and society generally. We're mostly average folks with an interest in offbeat automobiles, much like the readers who come here to read our missives to cars gone by. Hardly anyone will ever drive a Lamborghini, but everyone and his brother either had a Ford Pinto or knew someone who did. As Chris put it so aptly regarding the Ford Pinto:
Somewhere, three decades ago, a designer proudly unveiled it to the bosses at Ford; workers spent their waking hours building it. Young families bought Pintos, showed Pintos off to their friends, washed Pintos in their driveways, drove their babies home from the hospital in Pintos. Some of you drove Pintos; some of your parents or grandparents drove Pintos. Pintos were on TV, in movies, in magazines and newspapers. The Pinto is part of the fabric of our history.
Since the child is father (or mother) to the man (or woman), it makes sense for us to look back at our formative years to examine where our attitudes, likes, and dislikes for particular cars comes from. Setting aside the debate over the accuracy of the stereotype, fathers tend to be associated with the family car far more than mothers are. Most of us have fond (or otherwise) memories of going down to the car dealers with dad to get a new car for the family, driving it home, and then watching as it is shown off to all the other dads in the neighborhood, usually with the hood up and everyone making comments about horsepower, transmission ratios, etc., whether they know what any of it means or not.
Some of the most endearing posts and comments I've read on this blog are memories of dads and cars. And so we have convened another Car Lust Round Table™ to share. Included are reminiscences by Car Lust bloggers as well as links and quotes to some of our favorite posts and comments, all in honor of Dad for this Father's Day.
First, a couple from the archives:
-- Making good on a father's wish to restore a 1974 AMC "Oleg Casini" Matador:
"It was Feb. 19, 1999 in Abbotsford, B.C., and my Dad, Edwin Alberta Thoreson, became the proud owner of a 1974 Oleg Cassini Matador. . . . Although Dad received many offers to sell the car, he worked on it whenever he could and had visions of someday restoring the car. In 2003 Dad's legs weakened from age, making it very hard to get around, and after a serious fall the family decided to move him to a home where he could be taken care of. We brought him back to the house numerous times to check on the house, and his first concern was always checking on his old Matador. . . On Jan. 10 2005, Dad passed away peacefully, after joking with a nurse about where she was planning to put a flu shot. As the oldest son, and having seen the hidden beauty in the Matador that my Dad had seen, I decided to have the car moved to Calgary to try to make my Dad's dream come true. . .After two years of hard work, Dad's dream had become a reality. We commemorated the moment by putting on a special front plate that states "BEWARE THE MATADOR--This one's for you, Dad."
-- Reader TAFKA on living with an old car:
"When I was coming up my dad insisted on owning Studebakers. He also had only daughters, so guess who had to help work on these beautiful, but totally unreliable cars over the weekend? And I remember very few weekends that we weren't tinkering with cars. My girlhood was blighted by never knowing of a morning whether one or the other of the two Studebakers (the Commander was worse, but the Avanti later got that way) was going to start up, or whether there would be fraught moments before taking off for work or school, of my dad having to go under the hood to dick around with the carburetor, snarling at us kids just because we were there. . ."
I've written postings about a few of the cars my father had when I was growing up: the 1949 "Oldredford," the '64 Plymouth Belvedere wagon , and the '76 LTD that got us through the Great Blizzard. Dad had grown up in the Great Depression and learned to drive on big Detroit predreadnoughts with three-on-the-tree manuals. He had no particular interest in acceleration, handling, futuristic looks, or technical sophistication, but he loved his creature comforts. Give him a big land barge with a soft ride and an automatic transmission, and he was happy as could be.
In later years, Dad flirted with becoming a collector and bought a 1952 Chevrolet, which he had for a couple years before selling it to a friend of his. He wasn't particularly a car guy, and had no business
picking up a screwdriver or even opening the hood to check the oil. (I learned a great deal about auto repair and maintenance when i was growing up, but I learned all that from Mom.)
He was also adamantly opposed to owning a foreign car, like a lot of people his age--though that was in part because he was active in politics. When I went to get my Honda CRX, though, he helped me negotiate the purchase, and insisted on driving it around for a few blocks. It wasn't his kind of car at all, but he understood that it was what I wanted.
We were loafing along at about 80 mph, no speedo, just the big 4 1/2" tach showing 2400 RPM. Our black lacquered beauty was purring on all 8 through the chromed 3" straight pipe, on an even straighter stretch of smooth concrete. There was hardly any traffic. We were eastbound for the SCCA’s (Sports Car Club of America's) summer event of the year at Thompson, Conn. A fuel stop was due at Somerset and we were nursing it a bit, as there was no gauge to go by. No fenders, either, just pure automobile!
I noticed that Dad started to pay more attention to his cowl-side rear view mirror a ways after Laurel Hill. I ‘scootched’ up in my seat and took a quick look back over the tail. One had to be careful or the wind could blow your goggles off. “It’s a ‘41 Packard, Dad,” I said. He nodded. I looked again. It was gaining. Dad applied a little more throttle. There was no speed limit in 1948 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
I looked again. The big black 180 four door was moving into the passing lane, and I noticed that the two gents appeared to be sitting bolt upright and were wearing black Homburg hats. We were now doing close to 90. The straining Packard inched on by, the gents’ heads unturned with their noses lifted higher. They stretched the distance until returning to our lane. Dad lifted a little, fell back to 2300 RPM, then, bang!, bang! he double de-clutched, shifting down into second, and put his foot in it! The 7.00 by 18" rears cheeped, then bit, and the revs soared rapidly as engine and gears screamed. He switched to the passing lane, and we pulled quickly alongside the brute. Cockpit to front door, at 100, pow!, pow!, dad put her back in high! Again the Firestones burned and we streaked ahead. I looked back. The gents’ mouths were agape! Dad wound it up to 4100, close to 137 mph (the rev limit was 4500) and held her there until we got to the Somerset exit sign.
We parked, climbed out, removed our cloth helmets, and were taking off our kidney belts and WWII summer flying suits when the Packard pulled in next to us. As usual, a few onlookers were gathering. We were hot and hungry for lunch. So was she. The men got out, rushed over, and doffed their hats. One asked, "what is it, what’ll she do?" Dad said "Virgil..?" He always left it to me. I had it down pat.
“Be careful, the exhaust pipe is awfully hot!" I said. "It’s a 1932 Studebaker, two man Indianapolis race car. It has a 336 cubic inch straight eight engine with four Stromberg carburetors and 237 horsepower. It was one of Studebaker’s five-car racing team in the ‘30s, was driven to third place in ‘32 and 11th in ‘33 by Cliff Bergere, then to 10th in ‘37 by Louie Tomei. My dad has had her up to 148 mph, and she comes off the quarter mile in 12.97 seconds at just about a hundred!” The reaction was always the same:
Really? ... Wow!"
That fifth annual trek went on without a hitch. No fouled plugs, no blowouts, no overheating (no fan, for that matter), not even a tail dent. We stomped 'em in the trials on the Thompson half-mile and got the usual, "well, it’s a race car and not a true sports car" reaction from the foreign sporty ca’ lovers. Heck, we’d only just driven nearly 900 miles from South Bend through sun and rain to attend their snobby meet. If our mount didn’t qualify as a true sports car, nothing did! Besides, Dad probably knew more about their own cars than most of them. At least, members like Briggs Cunningham and Russ Sceli really appreciated our endeavor. Father was, after all, almost a founding member (1943) and the club’s first member west of Pittsburgh.
However, to me, the biggest thrill of the trip was that Dad actually let me drive 'our special' on the track. I was 15 and Mom had taught me to drive in our '41 Stude President when I was 13. It was about time! I already had over 8,000 miles in the 'riding mechanic's seat, but, that loud pedal was more sensitive than I had ever imagined. Dad had to hang on for dear life, for a change!
My father was a conservative Democrat; he believed in the working man but held traditions very tight. He was also Irish--he had a fighting temper and the first dime he ever made. And he only drank a beer or two a day to "calm his nerves" since he was an air traffic controller.
He never bought new spark plugs. After all, there was no reason to, since the old ones would always clean up just fine. He also had well-developed arm muscles from pull-starting the 2-cycle boat motor he reinserted those old spark plugs into so many times.
He only bought two brand new cars in his lifetime. The first was a late-1950s Volkswagen, the third ever sold in Nashville. The second was a new white 1965 Beetle, loaded, with whitewall tires, AM radio, sunroof, and a trailer hitch. Yes, a trailer hitch.
About three years later, he bought a two-stall horse trailer to cart my sister's mares around for The Pony Club. To get the thing home, he used the VW, since he had driven it to work at the control tower that day. The folks at Wallace Trailers said he'd never get it home, and in typical Irish fashion, he said, "watch me."
Surprisingly, all went well. He had to get a good running start to climb Yeargin's Hill, and luckily he didn't have to stop quickly that afternoon. But he finally pulled into the driveway safe and sound, trailer in tow, with a satisfied look on his face that seemed to say, "See, I told you so!"
Since I'm probably the youngest contributor posting here, the cars of my youth are probably also the newest. I won't wax nostalgic on any old Detroit iron since I have no memories to pull from--the oldest car that either of my parents drove while I was a kid was my mom's '73 Duster, which was notable for me because it was the first car I remembered my parents owning that was older than I was. Why she bought that car, meanwhile, ties into a bit of personal disclosure. In 1987, when I was 7 (give or take), my parents filed for divorce. My dad got the car and limited visitation rights; my mom got me and the apartment. Consequently, while most of my fellow compatriots here will undoubtedly spin yarns about family vacations gone awry, most of my memories of my dad's cars involve rare one-on-one road trips, many of which involved random SCA events. Between you, me, and the rest of the Internet, most of the costumes I wore for SCA and my mom's paralleling Renaissance Faire obsession were far more damaging to my young psyche than anything the divorce put me through.
You might think that someone who grew up in Brooklyn wouldn’t have a whole lot of car-related memories to contribute to a Father’s Day compendium. But the Brooklyn of my kidhood (which began in mid-1949) was not the Brooklyn of today, and it especially wasn’t the Brooklyn from which my parents fled at the end of the turbulent ‘70s. In our Brooklyn it was possible to park a convertible on the street, and that’swhat my dad did for quite a while. My own particular automotive goofgeist was informed to a large extent by the cars dad owned while I was growing up. When he was relatively young, his choices were relatively interesting. As he got older, he bought more with his head than his heart. As I look at my own list of cars, which now approaches 50 entries, it becomes clear that I followed the same path.
The earliest family car I can remember (albeit vaguely) is a blue ‘49 Dodge Wayfarer Roadster, which had no back seat and, in the interest of keeping the price down, had removable side curtains instead of roll-down windows. The Wayfarer was replaced rather suddenly by a two-tone blue 1953 Dodge Meadowbrook sedan, but we only had that for a few months. It went away in favor of a ‘53 Dodge Coronet convertible that boasted Chrysler’s semi-automatic fluid drive transmission, wire wheels (replaced with steel wheels by the time the picture was taken), and a continental kit. We kept that car for quite a while, abandoning it only when it became clear that the carpeting was the only barrier between my back seat feet and the pavement below.
I take full credit for finding the Coronet’s replacement. Cruising the Sunday Times classifieds – as was my habit even at age 11--I came upon a ‘56 Chrysler Windsor 225 convertible whose equipment list included ... a record player! I pointed it out to dad, who replied, "it couldn’t hurt to look," so look we did. The Chrysler was white, with a white top and a red-and-white leather interior. I don’t recall whether any pleading on my part played a part in the decision, but a deal was struck and the Chrysler, complete with a small library of 16-2/3 RPM records, was ours within a couple of days.
After a serious fender-bender, my dad replaced the Chrysler with a metallic blue ‘58 Chevrolet Impala convertible that turned out to be the family’s only GM car, ever. It had the wonderful 283 cubic inch small block V-8, and the less-than-wonderful two-speed Powerglide automatic. Towards the end of the Impala’s life I got my learner’s permit, and proceeded to abuse both the car and the permit on a regular basis. By that time the Impala had begun to rust, and was suffering from a serious case of vapor lock that manifested itself as a hot-start problem. "The car wouldn’t start" was my regular excuse for returning home later than agreed, and more often than not it was the truth.
Alas, the Impala was our last convertible, but we still had two more pushbutton-tranny Chryslers in our future. The first was a white ‘62 Newport four-door hardtop whose most distinctive feature was the clear plastic bubble that covered its full set of electroluminescent gauges. I took my road test in that car, and still have a soft spot for the hardtop body style. In 1967 the Newport gave way to a ‘64 New Yorker four-door hardtop, complete with rectangular steering wheel and brocade upholstery. It always ran very hot, and the brakes seemed to have only two positions: off and "buckle up or I’ll put you through the windshield." After a couple of years, the New Yorker went away in favor of a truly lovely 1965 Chrysler 300, again in four-door hardtop configuration. But what a difference that single model year made. Where the ‘64's body and interior felt tight and solid, the ‘65 seemed to be held together with thumb tacks and rubber cement. Mechanically, though, it was just fine, as was the identical-under-the-skin Dodge Custom 880 that became my own very first car at roughly the same time. The big difference was that mine, just by chance, had air conditioning.
From that point on, my cars got more interesting (the next two were a 1951 Cadillac and a 1964 Jaguar Mark 2), while dad’s, at least for a while, became mostly awful. The 300 gave way to--gasp!--a colossally craptastic ‘71 Plymouth Duster whose only redeeming virtue was air conditioning. After another few eminently forgettable examples of Detroit’s worst efforts, dad went offshore and bought a year-old ‘86 Volvo 240. Aside from needing a fairly regular shot of Freon, the Volvo gave good service for 10 years.
Dad’s last car was the ‘92 Grand Marquis that I took over when he gave up driving. It now occurs to me that a big reason I’ve put so much effort into keeping that car on the road is to retain that connection for just a while longer.
Many people have fond memories of their dad, the Car Guy, out in the garage or driveway, changing the oil, replacing the plugs and points, and performing a number of maintenance jobs on the family car.
That was not my dad. Although he loved certain cars, he wasn't much of a Car Guy. During my early years, he was the main force behind car purchases even though mom did most of the driving. Being of the old school of American automotive design, he liked BIG cars. Big luxurious cars. Even though we couldn't afford them, he had a real love for Cadillacs and Chrysler luxury models. We ended up nearly always getting some GM product, not out of a real love for the brand (although my mom probably felt safest with them) but because there was a dealer in town that they both trusted.
I've outlined my family's history of cars elsewhere, but the main ones I remember most are the Catalina and the Wildcat. The Catalina was the first car I truly remember to any extent, and the Wildcat was the first one I have actual memories of us actually shopping for. We'd looked at a Dodge Coronet, which dad really liked (he had a thing for Dodge, too), and I took a fancy to it as well. Nevertheless, we ended up with the Wildcat. I have fond and not-so-fond memories of the Wildcat. We used to drive from Wisconsin to Alabama for summer vacations, which meant being cooped up in a hot car for 14 hours. The usual configuration was mom driving, dad navigating from the passenger seat, me (the youngest) in the middle front, and my two siblings in the back. It only had an AM radio, so most of my musical memories from the late '60s and early '70s were AM radio songs. Dad loved navigating, so he'd be sitting there with one of the old foldout maps on his lap pointing out to us all the places he'd been to in his life, which often meant some stress for mom as he mapped out half a dozen different possible routes when all she wanted to know was which exit to take and when.
On those trips and others we'd also play the "counting cars" game. This was back when the Big Three were still about the Only Three and styling was still in vogue, so it was relatively straightforward to tell them apart. My sister always took GM, my brother had Chrysler, and I had Ford. Dad took the AMC leftovers and mom didn't care. Of course, little did I know then that, due to market share, the game was always stacked in sis' favor. Still, we dutifully depended on dad to recognize oncoming cars and put them in the appropriate categories. Only later did I find out that he'd been guessing much of the time.
After I moved away, I didn't have much to do with my parents' cars unless I was home for a vacation or something. They went their separate ways with car purchases, mom getting whatever she wanted for her various jobs and personal errands (always GM, of course) and dad getting whatever caught his fancy at any given time. He absolutely loved those mid-late '70s Ford "personal luxury cars" like the Lincoln Continental and Thunderbird though he never broke down and bought one. That's probably where I get my affection for these as well, though at the time I preferred the GM types. Nature or nurture? Beats me, but we sure ended up with similar tastes. He eventually got a Pontiac Bonneville, which was an absolute nightmare. He was either too cheap or uninterested to invest the substantial sums needed to keep the thing running properly, and the one time I drove it I had to call him up to find out why it wasn't starting. I don't remember precisely what I had to do, but I recall it was some complicated series of mechanical maneuvers that only he knew how to perform. Thankfully, that was a short-lived experiment.
His last car was a 1986 Chrysler Fifth Avenue. This was probably the closest he came to having his ideal car. He got it used from a family friend and it was a truly excellent car in the tradition of American luxury sedans, with rear wheel drive, V-8, leather seats, and a quiet, smooth ride. I was quite fond of it as well, and we spent many fine days driving it back and forth to the golf courses while on vacation. There really are few things more satisfying than getting into a quiet, comfortable car after walking for several miles swinging a bunch of metal sticks around and being carried home in soft, butter-smooth luxury.
By then my mom had drifted towards smaller SUVs, and dad didn't much care for them. He always saw them as trucks and felt that a good, big car was a true mark of having "made it." He never really felt safe in smaller vehicles either; safety for him was mass, acres of steel, and a hood long enough to have its own zip code between him and oncoming traffic. I admit I've acquired some of this; I simply can't stand being in a car where I don't have difficulty seeing the end of the hood.
Dad passed away a few years ago, and the old Chrysler sat in the garage for almost a year after he was gone. It took mom a while to part with it even though always seeing it out there was something of a painful reminder of his absence. He hadn't driven it very much in his last couple of years, but it was still "dad's car." When she finally did sell it, it went back to the old GM dealer on consignment and sold pretty quickly and for a pretty good price, too. I don't remember what she did with the money, but she spent it on something dad would have liked as his last material gift. [Note: updated to add photo]
"My first ride in a hot rod was in the back seat of a brand new 1966 Chevy II with the 350hp 327 engine. A friend of my sister had just purchased the car and was anxious to show it off. I was 15 years old at the time and the hottest car I had ever ridden in was a 1959 Chevy wagon.
"The new owner took it to redline in each gear, much to my delight. I will never forget the sound of that 327 screaming, the new-car smell of vinyl and carpet and the incredible accleration. I still love the look of the car ... (and) those memories of a time 42+ years ago. I will never forget (it)."
"... he coped with the impossibly slow 55-mph speed limit and a four-cylinder Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera company car. Strapping a performance guy like my dad into a 90-horsepower Cutlass Ciera for forced marches across Kansas at 55 mph was as cruel a punishment as forcing Carl Lewis to wear wooden clogs."
My love for vehicles can be directly traced to my father. I say vehicles, because in my family motorcycles are the primary focus of wheeled lust. Most families own a three-car garage to fit the family vehicles and maybe the lawn mower and a boat. Our three-car garage had one "stall" air-conditioned before the house was so the cycle shop would be comfortable. Oh, and the other two stalls? They were filled front to back and side to side with motorcycles. There has been a car in that garage maybe three or four nights in the last 28 or so years. A man has to have priorities right?
While our tastes in cars differ, my father and I share a common automotive enthusiasm. If I had to guess my father's top car lusts, they would all be a form of race car, starting with a World of Outlaws Sprint car and his own private half-mile dirt track. The unfortunate reality of economics in my family meant that we never really owned a remarkable car. Everything we owned had to be dependable and fixable. That meant nothing exotic nor temperamental would ever land in our stable.
The first car I can remember is a mid-1970's Honda wagon in bright orange--one of those 1600cc gutless wonders that could go miles on a thimbleful of gas. I don't know what happened to that car, but I do remember as a kid seeing my father grabbing the rear bumper and lifting the whole back end of the car off the ground by himself. I'm sure there was a connection of some sort to the fact that my father was/is a Honda motorcycle fanatic and shop manager/mechanic. My only memory of riding in that car was a trip to the hospital.
The next vehicle of note was an early 60's Ford truck. It had the cool vent windows and bias-ply tires that howled like mad when you drove too fast. This truck was cool because in it's former life it drove a bazillion miles at the local airport with an airplane stairs mounted on top of it. This was from the days where you got out of the plane, hiked down the steps to the tarmac, and walked in to where your family waited just inside the doors. The truck was covered with spots where the welds for the steps were cut off when it reached the end of its airport service.
From there it was a Pontiac Ventura, a Chevy Impala, a VW Rabbit, another Pontiac that never quite ran right, and now a F-150 and a Honda Accord.
I drew some major benefits from our limited resources and the fact that my grandfather owned his own car repair shop. I got to spend a lot of time working on vehicles with my dad. I remember weekends of turning disks and bleeding brakes, welding exhaust and changing rear differential fluids. Outside of a transmission overhaul, there was little that we didn't do at one point or another. This gave me a great basis for being mechanically inclined, and over my lifetime it has undoubtedly saved me many thousands of dollars and has saved my butt more than a time or two when something broke down at the worst possible place and at the worst possible time. While dad was always working on cycles to make ends meet, he always included me in the process and let me learn, even when that meant it might cost him some time and/or money to do so. My father and I skinned our knuckles together wrenching on cars, countless motorcycles, and even a few bicycles. I learned a lot about vehicles, but even more about love. So happy Father's Day to all you dads, especially to mine!
The top photo is from Darrin & Andrea Lythgoe's Genealogy Pages. Mr. Exner's photos appeared in Car Collector magazine. All other photos are property of the Car Lust contributors.